By Dan Rubin
It’s easy to remember the way Drew Bledsoe left the New England Patriots. It’s very easy to remember the hit by Mo Lewis, the internal bleeding, the recovery, and the benching. It’s easy to remember Tom Brady leading the charge, becoming “The Man,” leading the blue and silver to playoff glory. We all recall Bledsoe coming off the bench when Brady sprained his ankle in the AFC Championship Game, his performance in the first half that paced the team’s victory, and the tears when he collapsed with the game ball after that game. And it’s easy to remember how Drew faded into the sunset as Brady won the Super Bowl, became the NFL’s Golden Child, and exiled Bledsoe to the twilight of his career. After a brief resurgence in Buffalo, Bledsoe faded out of sight, replaced first by JP Losman, then again in Dallas by Tony Romo.
On Monday, Bledsoe became the latest member elected to the New England Patriots’ Hall of Fame; the latest of the line of players who helped paved the “Patriot Way” that’s become a staple of fan lingo over the last decade. He was the first true Patriot, the biggest and brightest star, and Pats fans always keep a special place in their hearts for #11.
Bledsoe goes down in Patriots history as the second best quarterback to ever suit up for the franchise. He had the physical tools to be one of the all-time greats, and when he had the right weapons, the Patriots were virtually unstoppable. He won division titles, playoff games, and two AFC Championships. He had a signature moment early in his career when New England demolished the Pittsburgh Steelers in the fog in Foxboro during the 1996 season’s playoffs. He led the Pats the following year without Bill Parcells to five wins in their final seven games, willing the team to the playoffs for the final time in his Patriot tenure. He was a warrior, playing through injury, willing the team through the apex of its 90s run and onward to the late decade decline under Pete Carroll.
Besides Brady, nobody accomplished more. It’s impossible to put into perspective what the man did for football in New England. In 1992, James Busch Orthwein bought the team from chauvinistic Victor Kiam with the intention of moving them to St. Louis. Coming off a 2-14 season that left them with the first pick overall, the Patriots had new colors, a new coach in Bill Parcells, and intentions to leave Massachusetts for the Midwest.
But that season changed everything. As a rookie, Bledsoe suffered through a 1-11 start, but most of the losses were by less than a score. Finishing the season with four wins, the front office situation cleared up when Bob Kraft, the owner of Foxboro Stadium’s lease, refused to break the deal to let Orthwein move the team. Kraft instead bought the team and with the star QB, revitalized the franchise.
The entire decade of success came with Bledsoe at the helm. There was that game against Minnesota, when he hooked up for an overtime winner to fullback Kevin Turner. That game spring boarded New England to a 10-6 record and playoff appearance, the first since the Tony Eason era. The next season, the Patriots returned to Monday Night Football for the first time in over ten years. The season after, the Pats went to Super Bowl XXXI. In less than a decade, football went from being an afterthought in the Boston area to being the centerpiece sport and franchise against which all others were measured.
But Bledsoe’s greatest moments maybe came after the team’s success started to dwindle. With Pete Carroll on the sidelines and Bobby Greer botching draft pick after draft pick, the Patriots began a slow decline from which that regime couldn’t recover. But yet there Bledsoe remained, standing under center, as offensive coordinator after offensive coordinator turned over. In the aftermath of Parcells’ departure, Bledsoe went through three completely different systems. Larry Kennan became the immortal Ernie Zampese, who in turn became Charlie Weis.
He went from being surrounded by talent to being the only shining star, as Terry Glenn’s personal issues killed his career, as Curtis Martin bolted for New York, as Robert Edwards blew his knee out. Bledsoe’s targets went from Vincent Brisby and Ben Coates to Lovett Purnell and Rod Rutledge. His offensive line, anchored by Todd Rucci and Max Lane, got him injured on more than one occasion. With talent around him dwindling, Bledsoe began trying to do too much with too little, and the team’s record suffered.
Eventually, it became apparent that Bledsoe wasn’t the answer anymore. We went from loving Drew to thinking that the Pats couldn’t win under him, that his career had been executed by too many bad offenses. It became too much for him to bear, the final straw being when the team limped home in the 1999 season with an [8-8] record after starting [6-2]. As fans we started thinking Michael Bishop would be a better option and that it was finally time to say goodbye to Bledsoe.
Then came the Bill Belichick era and the denouement of #11’s tenure in New England. It’s well documented about the [5-11] season in 2000, Mo Lewis’s hit in Week 2 of the ’01 campaign, and the rest of history. It was the antithesis of all that Bledsoe worked for, all that he strived to be. He was a work horse when the rest of the team was falling apart, and in the end, he was cast aside to a division rival, a relic for what was instead of where the team was going. Indeed, the dynasty’s offense was built around guys that Bledsoe, for the most part, never threw passes to and never took the field with.
Maybe the greatest tribute to Drew Bledsoe is this – the Patriots now play in a beautiful stadium seating over 60,000 fans. The sellout crowds that go to see the team indicate that it’s all because of Brady, and there’s some truth to that. But the crowds are there because of Bledsoe. Without him, there wouldn’t be a Gillette Stadium, and there probably wouldn’t even be a Patriot franchise. We’d all be back to being New York Giant fans, the way things were before (and actually during) the Patriot tenure.
Over the years, the Patriots had a number of characters that endeared themselves to the fans. Steve Grogan won over fans with his tough-as-nails attitude and his ability to do so much with so little. Doug Flutie’s time was short (no pun intended), but he was the local hero. We go back to quarterbacks like Jim Plunkett and forward to Tony Eason. But none entered the stratosphere that Bledsoe stood in. We jumped all over him because we expected greatness from him, and in defeat, he stood with class, with dignity, with talent. Sure his career might’ve been hamstrung by a terrible front office, and his prime was cut short by Zampese’s terrible offensive game plan. But Bledsoe saved football in the region, and he’s the reason we remain Pats fans.
Perhaps the final, most enduring image for Bledsoe won’t be anything from his time in uniform. It might not be his trips to the Super Bowl or his ability to play through injury. It won’t be his ability to play through criticism, to shoulder the load, or to mentor his young backup. It won’t be the AFC title when he came off the bench in relief of an injured Brady, and it won’t be anything from those God-awful years in Buffalo and Dallas. No. Bledsoe’s most enduring image and legacy will be the New England Patriots still playing in New England in 25 years, maybe with a couple of more Super Bowl banners, with his number hanging next to Brady’s in retirement.